Union: Special Ed Reforms Worsen Overcrowding

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United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said Tuesday that nearly half of the city’s schools have overcrowded classes, and that the problem is even worse in special education classes.

“Parents and teachers know that many children need the individual time and attention that lower class sizes can provide,” Mulgrew said at the release of the union's annual class size survey. “Unfortunately, Mayor Bloomberg and the Department of Education disagree.”

Based on school registers from the early weeks of school, Mulgrew said 670 schools had oversized general education classes, up from 660 last year. The survey found that the number of overcrowded special education classes in the schools surveyed more than doubled, from 118 to 270. He attributed the spike in special education class sizes to reforms which require principals to accommodate almost all students with special needs at their neighborhood schools.

Mulgrew said it had a direct impact because special education class sizes -- mandated by students’ Individualized Education Programs, or I.E.P.s -- need to be quite small.

“The teachers are frustrated,” he said. “In a 12:1:1 special education class, if you have 16 kids, that’s an extremely tough environment to teach in.”

The Department of Education will release its class size report in November. In the meantime, D.O.E. spokeswoman Erin Hughes said the union should focus on other issues that could help the department save money and alleviate overcrowding.

"If Mr. Mulgrew does in fact share this concern, he should accept our many proposals to stop paying those in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool who are draining resources that could otherwise be used to put permanent, effective teachers in the classroom," she said, referring to teachers who do not have full-time staff positions at a school but remain on the city's payroll.

According the city's contract with teachers, class size limits are as follows: For pre-K, 18 students with a teacher and paraprofessional; kindergarten, 25 students; first through sixth grades, 32 students; seventh and eighth graders 33 in non-Title I schools and 30 in Title I schools; High School students, 34 students.

“There is a law that New York City is supposed to be reducing class sizes,” said Leonie Haimson, the executive director of Class Size Matters, a group that advocates for class size reduction in public schools. “The city is violating the law in the most egregious way.”

Haimson added that 86 percent of principals cite class size as a barrier to providing quality education.

Some of the high schools experiencing the worst overcrowding include: Benjamin N. Cardozo High School and Forest Hills High School in Queens, Port Richmond High School in Staten Island. Among the most affected middle and elementary schools are Frederick Douglass Academy in Manhattan, PS/MS 194 in the Bronx and IS 318 in Brooklyn.

While some school principals are working to reduce class sizes to their legal limits, Mulgrew said, others will be pressured to comply.

“The UFT will begin arbitration to bring the remaining oversize general education classes into compliance,” he said.

The rules for special education classes in general education schools is governed by the state, not by the union contract. Mulgrew said the union would make state regulators aware of all class-size violations.